Home Book Reviews The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tom M Tango, Mitchel G Lichtman, and Andrew E Dolphin

The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tom M Tango, Mitchel G Lichtman, and Andrew E Dolphin

by Joe Gray

(Potomac Books, 2007) 384 pages.

Up until this publication, any mention of “the book” in a conversation about baseball was a reference not to a written piece of work, but rather to a body of tactical advice passed down from one generation of managers to the next. Seemingly, all a tactical ploy needed for inclusion in “the book” was to be successful at least once, on some field, somewhere in America. It was, in essence, baseball folklore. But, as it states in the preface to this publication, “The unwritten book is about to be written.” And it is written by using numerical techniques to analyse baseball strategy. Tom Tango is the best-known of the authors (through his internet presence as TangoTiger), but all three have worked with Major League teams.

While some of the ideas presented are groundbreaking, this is not a revolutionary publication: the idea of using maths to determine the optimal tactical decisions in baseball goes back many decades (George Lindsey was working on it back in the 1950s). But the writers are not claiming that. They are careful to point out which of their findings are new, which support existing ideas, and which question current knowledge (or “convetional sabermetric wisdom”, as they call it at one point, putting together three words that might never have appeared so close to each other before).

The Book begins with a technical chapter titled “Toolshed”, in which the methods of the authors are laid out. Readers are given permission by the authors to skip this section if they want to (for those readers who really enjoy its technical nature, though, there is an appendix that comes with a warning of “Don’t try this at home”). It is clear early on, then, that the authors want to make their work suitable for a wide audience, without missing out the details that are so important for an analytical discipline.

The most important concept of all in the “Toolshed” is weighted on-base average, which is a statistic similar in intention to OPS but with weightings that more accurately reflect the worth of each thing a hitter might do at the plate. The statistic is used throughout the book to assess the pros and cons of various strategies. Unfortunately, the copy editor or typesetter must have been thinking about an upcoming holiday during work on that section. It is full of serious mistakes, including the baffling non-sentence: “Might this statistic see”. Overall there are more errors in the publication’s editing than a below-average shortstop might make in a couple of years. But I will not hold that against the writers, as it clear from their thoughtful approach to each problem that they are meticulous individuals, at least when it comes to baseball analysis.

After the “Toolshed”, the authors work through all of the standard tactical questions that a game of baseball throws up - and some of the non-standard ones – using what they believe to be the most rigorous methods available to answer the question. I won’t go into any examples here (as tempting as it is), but there are some real treats to be had by any reader who takes the time to read this book from cover to cover. If, instead, you want to just learn what the authors conclude, without knowing how they got there, then it is still worth getting a copy, as there are plenty of boxes breaking up the text within which a concise summary of each main finding is presented.

Now, if a manager of a Major League Baseball team says in an interview that he was playing it by “the book”, a meticulous journalist should ask if he is referring to the body of folklore or to the recent publication from Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin.

Have you read “The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.


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* Review: The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball « Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf June 3, 2008 - 3:19 am

[…] Percentages in Baseball 2 06 2008 BaseballGB, a blog from “across the pond,” reviews this 2007 title by Tom Tango, et al. It reports on the nuts and bolts of the book, but doesn’t give an opinion as to its worth […]

Joe Gray June 3, 2008 - 3:49 pm

My reply to Ron Kaplan can be found by clicking on the link in his comment above.


BaseballGB » Blog Archive » New baseball rule to eliminate marathon games from the Olympics July 30, 2008 - 12:23 am

[…] base-out states. My source will be The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball (reviewed here), as this has a table with all the information I need (on page 32). It is based on a run […]


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